The Los Angeles Sports Arena is easily our city's least-loved municipal structure. Grimly utilitarian in design with interiors barely hospitable to human life, it served as the longtime home to the Clippers and USC basketball. The former abandoned it when Staples Center opened in 1999, the latter when the Galen Center opened in 2006. Since then the Sports Arena has pretty much just sat there making everyone uncomfortable. Bruce Springsteen played a show there in 2009 in which he described the place as "the dump that jumps." When even the Boss has to reach for a backhanded compliment, you know you've become awesomely dilapidated.
Starting next week, the UCLA basketball team will see if the dump has any jump left in her. Pauley Pavilion is under renovation, forcing the Bruins to play their "home" games at sites far removed from the Westwood campus. Four will be at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The rest will be at the Sports Arena, which I personally visited for the first time in the early ‘90s. It was terrible back then and I wet myself imagining what it's like now. Presumably it's been overrun by feral cats, super-aggressive raccoons or a form of sentient toxic mold.
If the predatory wildlife can be kept off the court, the basketball should be plenty watchable. UCLA fans are dying for the program to start rocking like it did in the mid-2000's, and though the blend of talent and seasoning isn't quite there yet, it could be as soon as next year. In the meantime some exciting pieces are in place and the inaugural Pac-12 championship is there for the taking. A conference title plus a couple tournaments wins is the appropriate goal for this year's group. That would accelerate the program's forward mo and, with a 2012 recruiting class already looking like a potential monster, make a 2013 national title a realistic thought.
Here are four questions to keep in mind as the new season gets underway on November 11.
1. Can Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson take care of the ball?
Think of peak Howland teams and you think of commanding, assured point-guard play. Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook... these guys took opponents apart en route to Final Four appearances and are now getting paper in the NBA. But until next season when Kyle Anderson (a Bruin commit and the nation's top high-school point guard) arrives from New Jersey, Howland has to make do with more ordinary talent.
Jones and Anderson make an OK point-guard combination. They can run the team at a functional level. Last year, however, they both turned the ball over too much. And Malcom Lee, one of the Bruins' least turnover-prone perimeter guys, booked it to the draft, making it all the more crucial that Jones and Anderson make good decisions and tighten up the handles.
2. Is there any deep threat?
Last year UCLA's three-point game was not unstinky. In conference games they made just 32 percent of long balls, good for eighth in the Pac-10. Better three-point shooting would not only juice production from the wing positions but also clear out space in the paint for the steel tip of the Bruin attack: the inside scoring of Joshua Smith, Reeves Nelson and the Wearii (meaning David and Travis Wear, the identically twin big men who've transferred in from North Carolina). It doesn't help that Tyler Honeycutt, who made over 36 percent of his threes last season, followed Lee to the NBA lockout.
The two decent bets to answer this need are David Wear and Tyler Lamb. Many who've seen him play say David, though 6'10", can step out and do a poor man's Dirk Nowitzki. As a freshman Lamb shot the ball gruesomely last year but was a capable shooter coming out of high school. So there's hope.
3. How large is Joshua Smith?
Smith has some Stanley Roberts in him. Some Oliver Miller too. These are both compliments and not. The rotund-but-graceful center is a loveable archetype, yet their careers tend to play out as doomed struggles against body fat. Smith needs to shed weight for cardiovascular purposes and to commit lazy fouls less frequently. When he's on the court he's a Balrog, combining offensive boardwork with a deadly touch around the rim. He's a contender for conference player of the year.
4. Can they clean up the defensive glass?
Last season the UCLA defense was quite strong except in defensive rebounding. Nelson carries his weight but Smith doesn't pull down enough defensive boards for a guy his size. He and the Wearii will need to assert themselves on the glass, as will De'end Parker, a small-forward juco transfer. Springy Anthony Stover seems like a guy who could make an impact as well. Ending more opponent possessions after one shot could make an already good defense elite.
I think playing in the Sports Arena will be dreary as hell but won't influence wins and losses much. It's not like Pauley has been Autzen South the last few years. If you don't have home-court advantage, you don't have home-court advantage to lose. The schedule is classic Howland: a few nonconference opponents (Texas, St. John's) spicing up a bowl of local ingredients (Pepperdine, LMU).
The chance is there for UCLA basketball to reenter the city's consciousness. There's no NBA. If you're buying basketball, college is the place to shop. A whole new bunch of eyeballs are about to give the Bruins another look. If they can play through the Sports Arena's ick factor and conquer the Pac-12, they can lighten the vibes around UCLA athletics as we move into the Pauley 2.0 era. Add Anderson and (please please) Shabazz Muhammad in the offseason, and Howland's path back to the Final Four starts to come into view.